“When you talk about destruction, don’t you know that you can count me out” – John Lennon
We publish these excerpts of the book “You Say You Want A Revolution SDS, PL, and Adventures in Building a Worker-Student Alliance in the hope that future activists will learn from it. This book was edited by John F. Levin and Earl Silbar
Today, if people know anything about Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), it is most likely as the run-up to the drama of Weathermen, a small SDS faction of two or three hundred whose story has been recounted in films, histories and a stream of autobiographies. This drama follows a familiar arc of development: frustrated by the continuing war in Vietnam and repression at home, the Weather Underground turned to revolutionary violence in the belief that their actions would inspire others to join them in “revolutionary struggle” to overthrow the US imperial state.
Not surprisingly, their violence had the opposite effect, alienating and frightening potential activists. After three Weathermen blew themselves up making a bomb destined for a GI social dance at Fort Dix, the group fell apart and disappeared. This action program, while regrettable, was perfectly understandable and coherent from a liberal point of view (under the heading “frustrated idealism gone wrong”), and over the years it has become the official story of SDS. What does this dominant narrative get wrong? Nearly everything.
The reality was quite different. SDS at its apex in 1968/69 numbered 100,000 students, whose political views reflected a rainbow of ideologies. There were democrats and anarchists, socialists and communists, pacifists and Trotskyists, Marcuse acolytes, and Gramsci aficionados. But mostly SDSers were young idealists exploring the ideas of all of the above with a curiosity and willingness to risk everything in an effort to create a world without war and prejudice where social justice prevailed. When SDS splintered at its June 1969 national convention, a majority of voting delegates from its chapters supported a slate of officers and a program promoted by its Worker-Student Alliance caucus.
WSA argued for building a strategic alliance between students and the working class, believing such a coalition was key to forcing the US government to end the war in Vietnam and address economic inequality and the racial oppression that defined the condition of people of color in the United States. The contributors in this book were mostly members of WSA, whose formation had been initiated by the Progressive Labor Party (PL), a Marxist-Leninist party that had been formed in the early 1960s. Here these veteran student activists recount and evaluate their participation in the major campaigns of the 1960s and early 1970s: trips to revolutionary Cuba in defiance of the State Department travel ban in 1963–64; the first mass demonstrations against the Vietnam War; the national campaigns to end the military draft; the removal of campus military training programs and end of university collaboration with the war industry. They describe their participation in the student strikes and campaigns against the war and racism at Columbia, San Francisco State, UC Berkeley, Harvard, Fordham, the University of Iowa, Brooklyn College, and elsewhere. They write about alliances they made with labor unions and community groups in fights for social justice on and off university campuses. These accounts are both optimistic, from those still inspired, and bitter, from those now critical of their involvement. The stories they tell speak across the years, as a new generation of young activists—from Black Lives Matter to Fight for $15 to the Parkland students—face decisions about how to organize to stop wars abroad, confront racial oppression at home, and end violence and neoliberal exploitation. A recent Nation cover story on the Democratic Socialists of America, which has grown over fivefold since Donald Trump’s election, reports an emergence of an anti-imperialist left within DSA’s ranks and quotes a member saying that being Marxist-Leninist is now trendy within the organization. It is all the more reason to read the stories of activists who have been there before.
The origins of WSA lie in the early 1960s, when a group of radical factory workers from Buffalo, New York, in alliance with African American activists in Harlem and students at New York City universities, formed the Progressive Labor Movement (PLM). Almost without exception they were all former members of the US Communist Party (CPUSA) who had been expelled or resigned from the CP because they sided with the Chinese Communist Party in the Sino-Soviet schism that roiled the world of international Communism. PL was neither the first group that broke with the CP nor the last, but its open advocacy of Communism and bold activism defined and distinguished PL from other CP splinter groups, who mostly focused on intellectual debates regarding the direction of a new communist movement rather than engage in hands-on organizing to create one. Although the majority of the original PL members were in the labor and civil rights movements, there were a small group of students mostly based at CCNY, now City University of New York (CUNY). Some of their first activities were organizing support for various strikes, most notably a violent coal miners’ strike in Hazard, Kentucky. They held support rallies on city campuses, collected food, clothing and provisions for self-defense and delivered them to the striking miners. They were also active in the civil rights movement, joining coalitions against employment discrimination in construction in New York City and organizing material support for Robert Williams, head of the North Carolina NAACP who had called for African Americans to arm themselves in defense against racist attacks—predating the Black Panthers’ call for self-defense by a number of years. Although these activities brought PL some notice among students and civil rights activists as well as new members, it was PL’s organization of the first trip of eighty-three US students to Revolutionary Cuba in 1963 in defiance the US government’s travel ban that PL had its first significant impact on the growing student activism in the US. Ellen Israel, a nurse-midwife and international public health specialist, was a nineteen-year-old organizer of the first of two trips to Cuba in 1963: “Although those who traveled to Cuba then came from different backgrounds and had different motivations for going … many went on to become progressives, activists and even radicals either within the movements that followed or in their own work and professional lives.” Indeed, many of the Cuba student travelers, inspired by what they saw and heard in Cuba, became some of the earliest organizers of the anti–Vietnam War movement. At a conference of socialist and communist organizations at Yale University in March 1964, which was called to discuss ideological and theoretical differences, Milt Rosen, the chairman of PL, interrupted the academic-oriented plenary discussion with a call for national demonstrations on May 2 of that year under the slogan “US Out of Vietnam Now!” A committee was formed under the leadership of PL, and the subsequent demonstrations were the first national demonstration against the war in Vietnam.
This led to the formation of the May 2nd Movement (M2M), a self-described anti- imperialist peace movement, primarily focused on the US involvement in Vietnam. M2M organized demonstrations and teach-ins and was an integral part of the Free University Movement that created ad hoc schools that taught courses on imperialism, radical poetry, the labor movement, and radical theater as alternative to the ossified curriculum of establishment controlled universities. M2M published The Free Student newspaper, which attracted a group of young Marxist intellectuals, including Jim Mellon, Shin’ya Ono, Gene Genovese, Sharon and Alan Krebs, founders of the Free University in New York, and Anatole Anton, a veteran of the 1963 trip to Cuba, whose memoir appears in this book: In those early days there were some special virtues of the M2M that appealed to students and academics such as myself. The most important virtue for me was that the M2M treated the Vietnam War as an imperialist war and not as a civil war. They had the courage of their convictions in a way that other organizations didn’t. In the fall of 1964 Lyndon Johnson ran for president on a platform that pledged no wider war in Vietnam, declaring, “No American boys’ blood will be shed on Asian soil,” giving birth to the campaign button preferred by student activists: “Half the Way with LBJ.” Students and others flocked to his campaign, rightly scared by the bellicose Republican candidate Barry Goldwater, known for his statement “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.” LBJ won the election by a landslide.
Then in February 1965, a short month after being inaugurated, he dispatched 100,000 soldiers to Vietnam, quintupling the number of US troops on the ground. Students, many of whom saw themselves as prospective cannon fodder, were scared and outraged. SDS, previously a civil rights and antipoverty organization, rose to the occasion and called for a demonstration in Washington. SDS leaders were hoping for maybe 5,000 participants, but more than 30,000 chanting demonstrators poured onto the Capitol Mall and SDS became the de facto leadership of the student antiwar movement. M2M printed a special issue of The Free Student that for the first time engaged SDS leadership in political debate about the direction of the nascent antiwar movement: As SDS puts it “the war is fundamentally a civil war, waged by the south Vietnamese against their government; it is not a ‘war of aggression’.”
We appreciate the point that the war is not an infiltration or invasion from the north. But the war is a “war of aggression” by the United States against the people of Vietnam. There is virtually nothing domestic about the side of the Saigon government … it was not American supported, it was American created. Meanwhile, PL at its first national convention discarded the description of itself as a “Movement” and reconstituted as a communist, Marxist-Leninist-Maoist party, governed by the Leninist concept of democratic-centralism. The convention elected a chairman, Milt Rosen, a former member of the Communist Party’s National Committee; a vice-chairman, Bill Epton, a decorated Korean War veteran and leader of the 1964 Harlem Rebellion; and a National Committee (NC), all elected by a membership that accepted “party discipline”—meaning that after full discussion and debate members agreed to abide by the party’s decision regarding party line, strategy, and tactics even if they did not personally agree with the decision. Besides being disciplined, PL also could count, and after the SDS antiwar demonstration and subsequent M2M demonstrations in late May that drew at most a couple of thousand protesters nationwide, it was clear that SDS was where the students were. After internal discussion among PL’s National Committee, the party leadership instructed its cadre within M2M to dissolve that organization and join SDS. After a pro-forma discussion within M2M and over the strenuous objections of some members both within and outside PL, M2M officially dissolved itself in the spring of 1966. Some of the dissidents went along, but many severed their association with PL, believing that the decision to dissolve M2M was wrong and that they had had no voice in making it.
The 1966 SDS annual convention took place in Clear Lake, Iowa, at a Methodist family camp of clapboard cabins on the shore of the eponymous lake. Out of the several hundred students who attended, a couple of dozen at most were PL members, but their presence became a central issue of the convention. It was not at all certain that PL members would be allowed to join SDS, since a clause in the SDS constitution excluded communists from membership—a relic of the McCarthy era, when SDS was the youth group of League for Industrial Democracy (LID), a social democratic, neo-Trotskyist organization with a strong anticommunist agenda. The anticommunist clause was antithetical to the current SDS membership, a large mass organization that prided itself in its inclusiveness and its concept of participatory democracy where all members had an equal say and decisions were made by consensus. At the first plenum session a motion was made to strike the anticommunist clause from the SDS constitution. After a debate between Steve Max and Doug Ireland, who represented LID, and Jeff Gordon and Jared Israel of PL, the convention removed the anticommunist clause from its constitution and PL student members officially became members of SDS as well. LID cut its ties with SDS soon thereafter. PL’s strategic goal was never to take over the leadership of SDS.
The party recognized the fact that SDS was a mass organization representing various views and factions and even if PL and its allies could wrest control of SDS it would be a Pyrrhic victory, as indeed it was at the 1969 convention when PL/WSA became the de facto leadership of SDS. PL’s strategy within SDS was to win members over to an anti- imperialist analysis of the war in Vietnam and US foreign policy as well as an understanding of the importance of an alliance with the working class in order to build an effective movement. PL and its allies, who later became the Worker-Student Alliance Caucus, built activist SDS chapters on campuses around the country that focused primarily on the Vietnam War and all its manifestations on campuses: the draft, ROTC programs, military and corporate recruitment, and, most notoriously, Dow Chemical, the manufacturer of the napalm used in Vietnam.
They organized students to engage in outreach at factory gates, support labor strikes, and defend community groups fighting for social justice. They organized and joined demonstrations in support of the African American rebellions that were raging through US ghettos. They also continued participating in quarterly SDS national meetings, arguing politics and introducing resolutions, most significantly the Student Labor Action Project (SLAP), which advocated creating an alliance between students and workers. SLAP proposed a “Summer Work-In,” where students would get jobs in factories and do outreach among workers around the war and racism.
Through their organizing PL recruited members both to PL and the WSA/SDS. Internally PL continued to evolve. Its freewheeling antecedent, PLM, became a memory as the party intruded more and more into members’ lives. They forbade pot smoking, urged male students to trim their hair, and pressured couples to “regularize” their relationships in the belief that doing so would make them and their ideas more acceptable to the working class. PL’s political analysis also evolved. In the fall of 1966 PL’s National Committee criticized the Cuban leadership in PL Magazine for its alliance with the “revisionist” Soviet Union. Shortly thereafter PL expanded its attack on “revisionism” to include the Vietnamese Communist Party and the NLF for entering into negotiations with the US to end the Vietnam War and ultimately to the Chinese Communist Party for following the Soviet Union down the “capitalist road.”
There was widespread and vocal disagreement within PL over these changes in line. Members argued that they were sectarian and further that party leadership did not engage the members in a discussion of the new political positions. Instead, the party leaders only “explained” the rationale for the new positions after they had been adopted, thus violating PL’s own principle of democratic centralism. But ultimately the national leadership prevailed and the dissidents either acquiesced or left the party. Dick Reavis, who was the leader of the WSA/SDS at the University of Texas, described his decision to leave PL this way: In my ignorance of Communist history, I didn’t believe anyone should doubt a giant like Mao and I didn’t think that the global movement could hold together if it did. One morning at the unemployment office I questioned my Challenge sales partner about that. “But he sold out,” she told me …. After a few days of mulling it over, I concluded that PL was an organization whose attitude was that “Everybody has sold out but me and you and I’m not sure about you” .…
Two weeks later I was back in Austin, trying to piece my life together. Within SDS/WSA the change in PL’s positions was mitigated because PL student cadre, with some exceptions, did not argue for WSA caucuses and SDS chapters to adopt PL’s critiques of the international communist movement. Instead they emphasized PL’s continued support for Cuba’s right of self-determination and support for immediate US withdrawal from Vietnam and concentrated on the tactical battles that were raging on campus against the war, racism, and the draft. At the quarterly national meetings of SDS where political debates took place and resolutions on strategy were debated and voted on the situation was quite different. Stoked by the Columbia student strike, the upsurge in antiwar sentiment, and the “May events” in France, where students in alliance with workers shut down their country in a general strike, the SDS national leadership moved sharply to the left. At the 1968 SDS convention, Mark Rudd, a leader of the Columbia strike, and Bernadine Dohrn, later of Weatherman fame, were elected as SDS national officers. They declared themselves to be the true allies of the Cuban, Vietnamese, and Chinese revolutions, and they denounced PL and its WSA allies as counter-revolutionary apostates for their criticisms. After a daisy-chain of speakers, including the spokesman for the anarchist affinity group Up Against the Wall Motherfucker, the SDS leadership declared themselves and their allies the “true” revolutionaries in SDS and started a chant “PL Out! PL Out!”
Despite the urging, only a small number of the delegates joined in and national leadership backed off its efforts to expel PL/WSA. That would happen at the convention the following year. The student rebellions that erupted in the spring continued in the fall of 1968 and into the following year. At San Francisco State, the longest student strike in US history began that fall in support of the demands made by the Third World Liberation Front and the Black Student Union for open admissions and the establishment of a School of Ethnic Studies. The SDS chapter at SF State embraced these demands and was a key force in organizing support for the strike on and off campus. Heretofore PL had supported revolutionary nationalism. Hari Dillon, a PL/WSA member and one of TWLF strike leaders, explained: “Yes, we were Third World Nationalist. But there was another dimension to our nationalism. Our nationalism was revolutionary nationalism. Our nationalism was an affirmation of ourselves, not a negation of others. Our nationalism was aimed at white racism, not white people.”
Then midway through the strike the PL National Committee changed PL’s position to “All nationalism is reactionary.” The effect of PL’s change of line was profound, not only at SF State but throughout PL. Over the next several years it led to major defections from the party in San Francisco, New York, Boston, and elsewhere. Within SDS, PL’s new position on nationalism was a god-sent gift to the anti-PL/WSA forces. All over the country Third World students were demanding that universities establish programs that reflected the needs of students of color, including open admissions of Third World students, establishment of ethnic studies departments, and hiring of nonwhite professors. SDS and progressive students enthusiastically supported these demands. PL no longer did, and the SDS leadership relentlessly attacked PL for it. Declaring that they were the true allies of the Black Liberation Movement, particularly the Black Panther Party, whose program PL had criticized in PL Magazine, SDS national leadership, now controlled by the Revolutionary Youth Movement (RYM) faction, denounced PL as racist and counter-revolutionary and made plans to expel PL/WSA from SDS at the 1969 convention in Chicago that June. And so did the FBI. Not only did the FBI work to exacerbate conflict between the factions before the convention, they specifically advised their informants to vote a particular way. “All REDACTED informants were instructed to support the National Office faction in SDS against the PL faction.” The reason? “PL control of SDS would transform a shapeless factionalized group into a militant and disciplined organization.”1 The convention was held in a semi-abandoned convention center near the stockyards. About 1,500 delegates attended, of whom more than half were unaffiliated with either WSA or RYM. Given the widespread support in SDS for the Black Liberation struggles and the high regard in which student activists held its leaders, most notably Black Panther Party (BPP) chairman Huey Newton, it was apparent that RYM had a distinct advantage. However, through their own sycophancy they managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. RYM’s strategy to expel PL/WSA relied on the cooperation of the Black Panther Party. A BPP spokesman was to address the convention, denounce PL/WSA as counter-revolutionary, and declare that the Panthers would not ally with SDS unless SDS expelled PL/WSA. BPP spokesperson Chaka Walls began with a fiery, expletive-laden attack on PL/WSA to the enthusiastic cheers of the RYM militants. Then Walls veered off message and commented on the previous discussion of male chauvinism and women’s liberation. “I’m for pussy power myself … there’s a lot revolutionary women can contribute and that’s by getting laid.”
WSA had been thrown a lifeline. “Fight male chauvinism! Fight male chauvinism!” echoed through the hall, drowning out Walls. The RYM leaders, seeing the balance of forces shifting in front of them, desperately turned the microphone over to another Panther, Jul Cook, to “clarify” Walls’s remarks. Instead, Cook reinforced them. After reiterating Walls’s denunciation of PL/WSA as counter-revolutionary, Cook added, “You know, I’m with the brother, though. I’m for pussy power myself.” As more chants of ‘Fight male chauvinism!” reverberated through the hall, Cook delivered the coup de grace to the RYM strategy: “The position of women in the revolution is prone,” his words clearly audible over the chants of “Fight male chauvinism!” RYM’s opportunism had lost them the control of the convention and quite probably SDS. Two days later, Bernadine Dohrn led a walkout of her followers, leaving behind WSA/PL SDS members and the majority of the independents, who joined PL/WSA delegates in chants of “No split!” and then “Stay and struggle!” as the RYM forces left the hall. Becky Brenner, a WSA member from University of Texas, described the moment: It was a joyous night because the WSA won the majority, but it was also tinged with sadness. I remember both young men and young women in tears because it was a definite turning point in the student movement and in the leftist movement in general. WSA barely won, but we thought we could claim SDS as ours. Of course, it turned out to be only in our minds, as most people on the Left no longer saw SDS as a legitimate mass organization and it quickly lost much of its credibility. After the RYM exodus, the convention elected a slate of new officers, including John Pennington as national secretary. With the RYM gone, PL’s politics had free rein and quickly dominated the organization, with SDS adopting political positions and analyses that were almost identical to PL’s. Independents, both within and outside WSA, soon came to feel that there was no place for members who did not fully agree with the PL-dominated leadership and began to drift away from SDS. At the next national meeting SDS/WSA adopted a PL-initiated proposal, “The Campus Worker-Student Alliance,” which resolved that the central strategy of SDS would be to form alliances with campus workers around racism and economic issues. The CWSA initiative had some success on a number of big-city campuses, including Columbia, Fordham, and Harvard. At Harvard there was a notable victory against the university’s racism toward campus workers. Blacks were hired as apprentices in the skilled trades, but never promoted to the journeyman level after appropriate experience—a racist practice that kept Harvard’s costs down.
With publicity and demonstrations, students enabled workers to overturn this practice. But overall, the CWSA strategy was a disaster. With the antiwar movement dominating national consciousness on and off university campuses, PL’s strategy pushed SDS to step back from actively organizing against the Vietnam War. Independents in SDS/WSA who disagreed were marginalized and pushed out. Eric Gordon, a leader of the Tulane WSA/SDS in New Orleans, explains his departure around this and other issues: The Boston SDS, where the national office of the WSA/SDS was located and to which our chapter valiantly clung, had fallen into a deep authoritarian arrogance. How many of those folks were PL members I don’t know, but the national office made all manner of highhanded decisions for the organization, hurling insults and accusations toward anyone who questioned their tactics and puffed-up leadership. I had little interest in devoting time to reviving SDS at Tulane. SDS/WSA continued as an organization for a few years. It engaged in campaigns against racism on campus, supported campus worker strikes and community battles against university expansion, but its isolation from the antiwar movement, which by the early 1970s included most of the country, was fatal. By the mid 1970s SDS/WSA was dissolved. A new organization, the Committee Against Racism (CAR), was formed under the aegis of PL and continues to this day as an active antiracist organization. The twenty-three memoirs that follow are not the accounts of national leaders or media-designated luminaries. They are the voices from the guts of the student movement that swept the county in the 1960s and 1970s. They are the activists who spent their evenings writing leaflets about the Vietnam War and who were up at dawn passing them out on campuses and at high schools, subway stations, and factory gates. They are the ones who organized the campus chapters, circulated petitions, joined picket lines, faced down the cops, went to jail, and joined or allied themselves with a Marxist-Leninist revolutionary party in pursuit of creating a better, nonracist world guided by the pursuit of economic and social justice rather than maximizing profit. Many of the contributors remain active in social justice movements today, and are keen to share accounts of their experiences, both the good and bad, in the hope that another generation of activists can learn from them as well as take heart that they are part of a grand tradition of struggle for social justice.
1 To Director FBI 8/1/1969. New Left, Cleveland Division. Bureau File,100-449698-11. As quoted in Aaron Leonard and Conor Gallagher, Heavy Radicals: The FBI’s Secret War on American’s Maoists, Alresford, UK: Zero Books, 2014, p. 54.
You Say You Want a Revolution . John F. Levin. Kindle Edition.
We Danced Everywhere
The development of student activism in the 1960s was significantly impacted by the Progressive Labor–organized student trips to Cuba in 1963 and 1964 in defiance of a US government–imposed ban on travel to the island. The Cuban revolution that triumphed in January 1959 not only confronted US imperialism in what it considered its own backyard, it inspired people to organize for their rights all over the world. That included the United States itself, where Fidel’s visit to Harlem in 1960 on a trip to the United Nations emphasized Cuba’s solidarity with the growing civil rights and black nationalist movements. I was one of the organizers of these Cuba trips. How I Got Involved I was a quintessential red diaper baby. My parents were members of the Communist Party USA (CPUSA) but left during World War II when the party told them to abandon all struggles for social justice in the US and “join the war effort.” My father, Barney Shallit, was a social worker who had helped lead the first strike for union recognition of social workers in Los Angeles.
I remember joining the picket line when I was four or five and my dad defending me from an “anti” who was pushing me and yelling at me. He also worked as a social worker and advocate in the infamous concentration camps for Japanese Americans during World War II, including the worst of them, the Tule Lake Segregation Center, where the government imprisoned residents without citizenship, mostly older people and their children and families who didn’t want to be separated from them. He had lifelong friendships with several internees as a result and wrote about the experiences of those in the camps.
The obvious racism (there were no German or Italian internment camps) and the clandestine theft of the Japanese farmers’ rich land at little or no cost by the Western states’ growers’ associations, was my first stark lesson in how US capitalism uses racism to further its economic and political goals. I was in the third grade when we moved to Oakland from Los Angeles and found housing on the edge of a segregated black community, where I was assigned to an all-black district school.
My mother, Claire Shallit, was the only white mother in the PTA. I hadn’t known black children in Los Angeles and for a few days I felt very different. But I started to make friends quickly, visiting their homes and hanging out with their families. My parents for their part invited those families to our house. I remember my mother at the bake sales and school events working with the other mothers, making lasting friendships, and always with her big, beautiful smile. Getting close to these families and having them pull me into their lives with both arms gave me an opportunity to see the daily effects of bigotry, which fueled my lifelong commitment to exposing and opposing racism wherever I saw it.
My parents also welcomed and befriended the first black family to break the housing color line (the “red line”) that lay at the bottom of our all-white street, which resulted in my family’s total isolation from our white neighbors. As soon as the African American family moved in next door, my mother invited them over. We visited often, and my little brother became “besties” with their youngest daughter, Pookie.
In high school my parents also approved my playing hooky to attend the infamous May 13, 1960, House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) hearings in San Francisco’s City Hall, which became known as “Black Friday.” Though no longer in the CP, my parents had expected that my father would be called before HUAC when we lived in Los Angeles, a prospect that had prompted our move to Oakland. HUAC had already destroyed the livelihoods of scores of writers, teachers, union organizers, and others.
This time, HUAC was investigating “Communist subversion” on university campuses, in unions, and in schools (25 percent of those subpoenaed were teachers). A coalition that included students, Bay Area journalists, teachers, university professors, and others formed to protest the hearings. About 3,500 people demonstrated over two days. It was my first exposure to state violence when supporters of those subpoenaed were first not allowed into the hearings (the committee was issuing “white cards” to friends of the committee to stack the hearings) and were then beaten, washed down the steps of City Hall with high-pressure fire hoses, and arrested. That brutal scene of people knocked down by the watery blasts and then tumbling over each other down the stairs was front page news in California and all over the country.
After two years at San Francisco State, where I was active in local dance and the Opera Ring Theatre, I decided to take a Greyhound across the country to explore opportunities on the musical stage.
I arrived in New York City in 1962, aged nineteen, and was welcomed by my uncle and aunt, Earl and Helen Robinson. Earl, who had written “Joe Hill,” “Ballad for Americans,” “The Lonesome Train,” and many other iconic songs, was a famous Communist composer and performer. Soon after I arrived I was introduced to Progressive Labor through a family friend, Fred Jerome, a public leader of PL (and son of V. J. Jerome, the cultural commissar of the CP), who was at that time one of my very few contacts in New York.
It was a natural thing to join them because of my interest in civil rights and communism. I had read a bit about the new China, and was intrigued by Progressive Labor’s critique of the Soviet Union, which had led to a split with the CPUSA and the formation of PL. Their hope was that the Chinese CP would stay on a revolutionary path and would not reverse direction like the Soviet Union had. PL looked like a place for me to learn, to become politically active, and to have a social circle to boot. They were just forming a student group of about a dozen young men and women, mostly children of lefties, and I joined.
The first thing the new Progressive Labor Movement (later to become Progressive Labor Party) did was organize support for a particularly militant United Mine Workers (UMW) strike in Harlan County, Kentucky. We collected food, clothing, and money to distribute among the strikers’ families and tried to bring media attention to the issues in the strike as well. But the focus of the PL student group soon shifted to organizing a trip of students to Cuba in defiance of a government travel ban that made it a crime punishable by a fine of up to $2,000 and five years in prison for US citizens to travel to Cuba and four other Communist countries.
PL saw the Cuba trips as an opportunity to demonstrate its commitment to revolution and communism, show its capacity to take bold action, recruit members to PL, and establish a place for itself in the growing US student movement. The idea was to challenge the government’s travel ban to Cuba as a violation of our First Amendment rights and to establish that Americans could travel without restriction, seek information on their own, and make up their own minds about Cuba rather than accepting the US media version of the island as horror show.
Organizing the Trips
Our organizing for the project took us to college campuses and wherever we knew of individuals or groups who would put together a meeting of people who might be interested in going with us to Cuba. These “recruitment” meetings consisted of showing films and giving talks about Cuba’s young revolution, while also explaining the constitutional challenge.
We stressed the importance of seeing Cuba for ourselves and bringing back the real story to the US to counter the official media characterization of Fidel and Cuba as the Communist menace ninety miles south of Florida. We discussed how the US travel ban violated American citizens’ rights in order to shore up the anticommunist and antirevolutionary sentiment needed to perpetuate the Cold War and hide US domination of the region. The first Cuba trip, in the summer of 1963, attracted mostly students who were already somewhat radical, including black nationalist students from the San Francisco Bay Area and activist students from Puerto Rico. Others came from the Midwest, the South, and the Northeast. Some were mainly opposed to US foreign policy, others saw Cuba as a hopeful model for other poor countries that also needed national liberation, and all were curious. While some Cuba travelers were more serious than others, most of them contributed concretely, during and after, either by volunteering to speak to various groups, sitting for press and radio interviews, writing articles, or raising money for legal defense.
The purpose was to spotlight the contrast between the government’s depiction and the reality of post-dictatorship Cuba, which was now run by the Cubans themselves. My responsibility for the Cuba trips grew as I gained more understanding and skills, but I played a kind of secretarial role behind the men although I was one of the principal organizers; at the time, all of the leadership of the effort and of PL itself was male. I was assigned to “take the letters,” keep up the contacts, and make arrangements with the travelers, while the men were the planners and spokespeople. This was the first inkling of what I saw as my years in PL stretched on that the issues of women’s equality and leadership were not seen as important. At the time, there was only one woman on the National Committee of PL, and women’s issues were not raised when supporting or writing about various struggles unless it was unavoidable, such as supporting mothers receiving Aid to Dependent Children.
None of the wives of the leaders were in PL, none of the spokespeople were women, and often the main things young women were encouraged to do was to attract promising men to the party and sell Challenge, the party’s newspaper. The leadership even took a stand against openly supporting abortion rights, since it was “too controversial within the working class.” At one point in the late sixties, some PL women did write a piece about abortion rights and tried to start a discussion, but it was squashed by the leadership. Getting to the island was a trip in itself. Initially, in December 1962, we planned to go to Cuba via Canada. At the last minute, however, the Canadian government, pressured by the US, refused to grant a landing permit for the Cuban airplane that was to take us. We therefore then adopted as secretive an approach as possible to avoid the government blocking us again.
We met with our Cuban hosts at their UN mission and talked about our strategy with a radio blaring to drown out our conversation for the listening FBI. We openly bought tickets to Mexico as a decoy, and then secretly purchased other tickets for the actual trip. We also met with our lawyers, Leonard Boudin and Victor Rabinowitz, to plan the constitutional challenge to the travel ban after our return. For the journey, we had organized all fifty-nine students into smaller teams of five or six and went separately to the New York Port Authority to board the buses to Idlewild Airport (now JFK). We tried to act like tourists, dressed as such, and kept to ourselves. But as I looked around, I could see Feds everywhere in their signature dark suits and ties, watching. We boarded the buses, went through the process at the airport (still with Feds all around), and boarded two different planes hoping that at least one of the groups would make it. My heart was in my mouth the whole time, but when the flight rose into the sky, a cry went up all over our plane to the surprise of the rest of the passengers. Both flights landed in England and we flew together to Paris, where we stayed overnight. Our Cuban hosts had arranged for us to go to Prague the next day to pick up the Cuban plane in friendly territory. When we reached Prague, US federal agents were waiting for us in the airport and the US vice-consul read a statement warning us about proceeding. We had briefed everyone that we were citizens traveling with valid passports and were not obligated to relinquish those passports nor did those federal agents have the authority to force us. The agents tried to stop people, telling them that they were violating US law, but most of us just moved forward. Then someone came to me and said that two of the people in my small group had been taken to a room and their passports confiscated. I was just twenty years old, but I went to the room, told the agents that they didn’t have the authority to take valid passports from US citizens traveling for their own purposes—and was shocked when they actually gave them back. I left the room with the other travelers and promptly threw up once we were safely out of sight. To protect us from further interference, the Czech officials took all of us that night to the mountain vacation village of Karlovy Vary, where they put us up in an old European-style spa. It was full of vacationing high-level Russian officials, who were in sharp contrast to our motley crew sharing the ornate dining room with them. After a couple of days, we returned to Prague and with huge relief boarded the Cuban plane.
Impressions of Cuba
We arrived in Cuba and plunged headlong into learning about the revolution from the participants: university students, artists, dancers, folklórico performers, campesinos, industrial workers, and others. We visited the ballet school, which was being supported by the government, and saw Swan Lake performed by the incomparable Alicia Alonso—a Cuban prima ballerina and choreographer who had lived and performed in New York, throughout Europe, and in the Soviet Union, but who returned to Cuba after the revolution to found the Ballet Nacional de Cuba. We went to a new school being built for both the performing and visual arts where students from all over the island were admitted for free if they had the necessary aptitude. We met at length with members of the National Film Institute and discussed filmmaking in the new Cuba, what revolutionary art was, and what was meant by freedom to constructively criticize and promote within the revolution, but not to be destructive of it. We visited the anthropological institute and heard about efforts to revise Cuban history to reflect the true social realities of the past—for example, regarding slavery and racism—from the people’s perspective.
And along with a million Cubans from all over the country, we joined the 26th of July celebration in Havana, commemorating the rebel attack on the Moncada Barracks in Santiago de Cuba in 1953 that is considered the start of the Cuban Revolution, and listened to Fidel’s address and interacted with the crowd for hours.
“We danced everywhere we went with the Cubans—after lunch, after dinner … and even sometimes at breakfast!” Wayne Combash, left, showing off his moves. Leaving Havana, we traveled by bus throughout the country and met with cooperative farmers who were experimenting with hydroponics and new breeding methods, homeowners in new housing projects, and workers in both small and large plants. We visited several new schools and attended cultural events in cities and villages. And we danced everywhere we went with the Cubans, who were always dancing—after lunch, after dinner, later in the evening, and even sometimes at breakfast!
It was a lovely way to interact with people all around the country. (I remember one evening in Santiago de Cuba when we heard music and saw lights moving in a line down the mountain behind the motel. Soon a traditional band of local peasant musicians filled the courtyard, attracting people from all around the neighborhood, and they played and played until everyone was completely caught up in the dancing and singing and unity of the moment.
We visited historic sites like the Bay of Pigs, where the US-backed invasion by counterrevolutionary ex-Cubans from Miami was totally crushed and spoke with residents about the effective resistance. We visited health clinics and hospitals, including a mental health facility. Not one of this latter type of institution had existed before the revolution, since the rich would simply go to other countries if they needed mental health treatment. Cuba: students arriving at a rural village to help the sugar workers with hoeing weeds in the cane fields. We traveled to the east of the country and into the Sierra Maestra where the rebel army had been based and from which it launched campaigns against Batista’s army. Enthusiasm for the revolution was particularly strong in the east, considered the “seat” of the revolution, which was the poorest part of the country and had the largest concentration of Afro-Cubans. We visited schools for peasant children, for example in Minas del Frío high in the mountains, where children of the poorest campesinos talked about the opportunities they had to study for free, so they could contribute to the new society. We spent a day with sugar cane workers hoeing weeds in the cane fields, and learned about their lives before and after the revolution. In Santiago de Cuba we were greeted by The Mothers of the Martyrs. They told their stories and those of their sons and daughters who had died in the revolution. There was an emotional scene when some of our group rose to express their feelings of shame about the US government’s role in shoring up the Batista dictatorship and contributing to the oppression of the Cuban people.
The Mothers embraced the speakers and there were many tears all around. What we found was that four and a half years into the revolution there was widespread support for and participation in the changes that were being implemented by Cubans from all sectors of society. Racial discrimination was now a serious crime. Schools were being built all over the island, including in some of the confiscated mansions of Miramar, one of the richest Havana neighborhoods of the former national elite. We visited some of these schools and loved seeing the contrast of the palatial rooms and marble staircases and manicured grounds now filled with busy young children of all shades of color in their school uniforms.
We also met many, many engaged students all over the country—at universities, as well as grade and high schools, who were excited to build the revolution. We already saw the results of unprecedented efforts to ensure that students from poor backgrounds had full support to get higher education, including tutoring to address previous inequities. We had many discussions about the parallels and differences between the student movements in the US and student movements in the US and student action in Cuba—the big difference being that Cuban youth felt part of their revolution and US youth often felt in conflict with their government. Most of the Cuban students participated in Defense of the Revolution groups, which included study, discussion, and military training to prepare for any future invasion like the Bay of Pigs. We visited a school in the countryside that offered a curriculum focusing on fishing technology as part of an ongoing effort to build Cuba’s fishing industry. As in all the schools, there were many children of peasants attending with full support, including room and board.
Getting a clear picture of the problems Cubans faced was hindered by rarely finding leaders who would admit to any shortcomings. This was true of those in charge of institutions, the national press, and the government. We had discussions with lower-level managers and officials who did express criticism of the pace of some aspects of the revolution, and again, this helped us to grapple with the difference between criticism within and outside the revolution.
We also met people completely opposed to the revolution, but in my experience they were from the formerly privileged class who were just no longer privileged. Later in the trip we met with Che Guevara and asked him the same questions we had asked others: Why is the wage gap still so wide? Why are so many unwilling to admit there is still strong racism in the country, that darker people were in almost all cases the poorer and most discriminated against? Why is there still so much dependence on single crop/sugar production? What is Cuba’s plan for becoming self-sufficient and reducing dependency on the Soviet Union? Even, from one traveler, why provide white bread rather than whole grain bread to the people?
Che agreed with some of the specific shortcomings we had observed and discussed with us their importance and possible solutions, most notably the denial of the seriousness of continuing racism. He said it was foolish to ignore obvious racism and its effects by denying it—that, in fact, it must be dealt with strongly—but that people also need to be educated about it. He said narrowing the wage gap would take time in order to avoid a backlash from skilled workers.
He said that due to Cuba’s lack of cash, the US embargo, and the enormous priorities of the new nation, sugar was still the main way Cuba could earn foreign exchange to buy what it needed to advance. As to the bread question, he said that Cubans liked their white bread and that whole grain would take time to promote. One of the black students from the San Francisco Bay Area asked Che why they didn’t introduce African history in the Cuban schools. Che was dismissive, saying that it was a united Cuba now and that giving special attention to ethnic histories was divisive. For instance, he himself was Argentine,
Argentine, so therefore should his children need to be exposed to Argentine history in Cuban schools? The student stood his ground respectfully, saying that it was hardly the same thing, since half of Cuba’s people were directly related to Africa, with many still practicing African spiritual traditions, and that the existing racism in Cuba was against Afro-Cubans, not Argentines. Che was also dismissive of a question about forming worker’s councils (soviets) to provide more direct avenues of power for working people. Despite these wrinkles, I appreciated that we were in a dialogue that was different from previous encounters with those in authority.
We also met with Fidel in the coastal resort town of Varadero. Castro arrived amid a fleet of old Chevies and engaged our group around ping-pong games with lots of banter about North vs. South, détente, and imperialism. Several students played and bantered with him—and he won each time! It was a different experience from Che—Fidel offered a very human connection and great fun.
Crucial to the trip were the meetings we had among ourselves where we discussed what we were finding and our different perceptions of the same experiences. I remember the high quality and caliber of the discussions and debates as people worked together to understand what we were experiencing and how to best represent that so we could improve Americans’ understanding of the Cuban Revolution. We also discussed the legal situation and possible scenarios we might face, including the US government’s intention to invalidate our passports.
On Our Return
We were in Cuba for two months, though the second month was unplanned because President Kennedy had told all allied countries to forbid us from traveling through their territories. There was some worry and some demoralization, especially when the end of August came and the fall semester was about to begin. Then, unexpectedly, fascist Spain permitted us passage and we flew to New York via Madrid. We had had myriad discussions before our trip about how to respond when the government tried to invalidate our passports. When we arrived at Idlewild we sent a few people through immigration to speak to the large contingent of national and international press who were waiting outside while the rest of us staged a sit-in, demanding the government drop its intention to invalidate our passports. After several hours, with the press watching, the government relented and we passed through immigration with valid passports intact and “entered the US” stamps only. Once outside, we held a press conference that was covered around the world.
The government’s next move was to subpoena several people to testify before HUAC in Washington on “Illegal travel to Cuba.” Those who were subpoenaed prepared with the lawyers and the PL leadership and developed a proactive strategy. Rather than pleading the Fifth Amendment against self-incrimination, which had been the traditional approach of most people who had been called to testify before HUAC, we would explain fully and in depth why we went to Cuba, and what we had found there, which would belie the US government’s propaganda about Cuba. Before the hearings, we organized as many people as we could—Cuba travelers and others—to go to Washington and attend the hearings. Our approach surprised and frustrated the committee members, who were used to being able to intimidate and bully activists into “pleading the Fifth” by threatening prosecution.
Since we had good legal arguments for having defied the travel ban, we spoke about that and all the achievements of the Cuban Revolution. The committee members alternately demanded that we answer their questions and tried to shut us up. When the continual vocal support from the audience reached a peak, the committee summoned the police, who waded in, beat people, threw them into elevators, carried them out of the building, and arrested them. Of course, this was in the press and ended up as a black eye for HUAC. (After the second trip to Cuba the next summer, another HUAC hearing was convened where the Cuba travelers took an even bolder approach, attacking the reactionary and racist behavior of individual committee members in their legislative roles.) After the trips, the government indicted eight leaders of the Student Committee for Travel to Cuba in 1964 (myself and seven guys). One of these, a PL member named Phillip Luce, either was an informant or got scared and became one. He appeared as a government witness during the trial, which lead to a short but well-publicized stint as a paid stoolpigeon. Our case was appealed all the way to the Supreme Court, which upheld our argument that the travel ban was unconstitutional. This was a moral victory, but the government, in defiance of the Supreme Court ruling, continued to restrict travel to Cuba. In the year following the Cuba trips, we spoke at venues all over the country about our experiences to maximize the impact of these trips on a whole new generation who were questioning US policy and actions in Cuba, Latin America, Africa, and, increasingly, Vietnam. We urged students and others to become active, either on campuses or in their communities, in the growing opposition to the war in Vietnam, racism, and continued intervention in Cuba. Two Cuba travelers, Eric Johnson and Roger Taus, took a copy of We Are Still Here, a film we had received from Vietnamese National Liberation Front comrades in Havana, to Portland and Seattle as part of a recruiting effort for the next Cuba trip. The student leaders there had been warned by the FBI not to allow the film to be shown, but they showed it anyway. At least 100 people attended and several signed up to go on the next trip to Cuba. The biggest event was a gathering of 1,400 people in September 1963 in New York City’s Town Hall where the Cuba travelers spoke about both the issues and their recent experiences in Cuba, while outside a large crowd of counterrevolutionary Cubans protested, tussling
Ellen S. Israel